TRAVEL: shooting Tokyo in 48 hours (

How to shoot Tokyo in 48 hours

How to see Tokyo from the perspective of a professional photographer

By Christopher Johnson 14 January, 2011

camera, Japanese trains, Japan day trips
Tokyo Tower in harmony with Japanese traditional architecture.

With about 30 million people and hundreds of spectacular sights in Tokyo, 48 hours seems barely enough time to see a portion of the city, let alone capture its spirit digitally.

So don’t try.

If you’re in town for a weekend, slow down and focus on one area. That is, unless you like blurry shots and fleeting memories.

How to start your photo trip to Tokyo

Any quick trip to Tokyo should begin with a pilgrimage to the most iconic figure in Japan — Hello Kitty — whose profound cuteness graces the front of a convenience store at the mouth of the Takeshita-dori youth fashion street across from Harajuku station.

From here, after praying to more established gods at Meiji Jingu shrine, walk up the broad boulevard to Omotesando station and descend into Tokyo’s subterranean wonderland.

Speed and stillness

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Positioning and timing are the keys to this photo.

Nothing symbolizes Tokyo’s speed and efficiency better than its spiderweb of trains.

To contrast this blur of train energy with people waiting on the platform, I used a tripod to shoot at a very slow speed of 1/6 of a second.

You can almost hear the train rushing past you in the right side of the frame.

Capturing Shibuya

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A little extra thought and your photos will look as if they were taken by a pro.

At the next stop, Shibuya, thousands of people stream like fish through the station and the adjacent Mark City complex.

The demonic eyes of Taro Okamoto’s masterpiece, Japan’s answer to Picasso’s Guernica and the murals of Diego Rivera in Mexico, glare down upon commuters and shoppers, who seem oblivious to this dazzling array of color and horror.

To render a fish-people effect while focusing on the artwork, I went to the upper level and shot at a slow speed with a narrow aperture.

I also turned up the color temperature and saturation controls to enhance Okamoto’s use of red.

With thousands of people cluttering a scene with tricky lighting, the Scramble Crossing outside Shibuya station is one of the more difficult shots to get in Tokyo, even with my 10 millimeter ultra-wide lens.

After trials and errors

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Shibuya with 109 on the left, Tower Records on the right.I tried walking back and forth and shooting from various directions until I got this handheld shot with two iconic buildings — 109 on the left, Tower Records on the right — and people walking away from me, instead of into me, to create some space for the viewer to enter.

A tripod would have been better, if not for the throngs of people liable to knock it over.

Since Starbucks — the ideal overhead vantage point — frowns on photographers shooting through their windows, some Japanese pros bring their own ladders to get striking overhead shots of the hoards. But with only 48 hours in Tokyo, there’s no need to pack along a ladder; a high resolution camera and a fast, wide lens will work wonders in Shibuya.

The best place to watch the sunrise

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Shibuya DogenzakaPerhaps nothing says Tokyo better than neon lights dripping off glass in the crevices of Akihabara, Ginza, Shinjuku, or the love hotel district in Shibuya’s Dogenzaka area.

With millions of neon signs bombarding your eyes, it’s hard to focus on just one, and show their effect in a meaningful way.

Perplexed at how to illustrate this strange Tokyo balance of throbbing light and dark seediness, I found a couple walking toward a Dogenzaka street sign separating a darkened tree-lined street and a row of peep shops such as “Baby Doll” and “Love Plus.”


On the dock of the bay

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Sky and bay accentuated by the Rainbow Bridge.After a few hours of sleep, preferably in a love hotel, I would skip the cold, bloody and over-touristy Tsukiji fish market, and instead watch the sunrise over Tokyo Bay.

With a name evoking Jimi Hendrix, the Rainbow Bridge should be Tokyo’s answer to the London Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge.

But when it’s not lit up like a rainbow at Christmas, the Rainbow Bridge can appear disappointingly bland in the daytime. Stand underneath it, however, and the bridge can accentuate the dramatic skies over the windswept bay.

Head off toward Central Tokyo

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Yokoso TowerWalk away from it, and the circular off-ramp can appear like a UFO.

For more disorientation, check out the nearby Yokoso Tower, an architectural marvel which seems to bend backward.

Looking for ancient temples or futuristic designs, many visitors tend to overlook Tokyo’s elegant network of Venetian waterways, which breathe life through Gate City Ohsaki and other areas of a metropolis overwrought with concrete.

Central Tokyo is also one of the greenest urban areas in the world, thanks to the funky trees in and around the Imperial Palace grounds, Yoyogi Koen and other parks, and especially Shinjuku Gyoen, a must-see for anyone interested in Japanese trees and landscaping philosophies.


When to go watch Tokyo Tower

From there, instead of getting lost in Shinjuku station, stay above ground and ramble over to the “Skyscraper District.”

Instead of Roppongi Hills and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s HQ in Shinjuku, which strike me as cold symbols of government waste and inequality, I prefer the hypnotic patterns of a cluster of skyscrapers in Shinjuku, which better represent the city’s reverence for harmony.

As for the Tokyo Tower, which reminds some of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, its uniquely Tokyo character comes out more powerfully at night, especially when seen from the silent abode of the Zozoji temple area.

Underground world of Tokyo

To wrap up your 48-hour trip, dive into one of thousands of tiny underground clubs, which in Tokyo really are underground, often in Building two or Building three basement levels.

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One of Tokyo’s legendary erotic art performances.The recent Saiko meets Kickstart Your Heart event at Club Edge in Roppongi showcased some of Tokyo’s hottest and coolest bands, and some of the city’s legendary erotic art performances.

Be careful where you point your camera at night; they aren’t always welcomed inside the sex industry.

Finally, if you have time, visit some of the new and used camera shops clustered around the Nakano covered shopping street of the Kokusai-dori area just west of Shinjuku station. Tokyo is perhaps the world’s best city to buy a camera, and to use it.

See more of Christopher Johnson’s photos and other work



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